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In Praise of Allies, Nick, Complete First Draft
Sat Jul 30, 2016 21:07
108.14.114.32

Dear Allies

You deserve praise. Yes, you. Funny how I imagine you thinking, “But I’m white or male, I’m straight or able bodied, I’m liberal or middle class; or some combination of privilege, I’m part of the problem.” No you’re not and actually, you deserve praise.

You wear many faces. You were the white woman yelling “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” at the intersection as cops warily watched. You were the men at Slut March who eyed crude, street guys to shut up. You were my best friend of two decades, who held my hand during the Silent March against police brutality.

I’ve known you my whole life. My family knew you and before them, my ancestors knew you. Our freedom would not have been possible without you. It was allies, who came to our meetings, who marched with us, were beaten and arrested with us, who lost jobs and family for siding with us, who sometimes, died with us.

I’m writing this to you because today, we talk so much of privilege, identity, how to be an ally and how not to be an ally that it’s hard to say this one truth. You’re family. And thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

But how did we get here? How did we get to a place where you enter the room and are presumed to be a potential oppressor instead of friend? We tell you to check you privilege but also use your privilege. We tell you to decenter yourself from our dialogue. We tell you not talk to media and get at the back of the march. And you do because, yes, on some level, it rebalances our voices. But it’s gone too far.

You show up to share our struggle but after being browbeaten, you leave or stay but shrunken to fit a small role. We don’t need you invisible or silent or scared. We need you strong and loud and powerful. Of course, we don’t need you to be our savior. We have Bono for that. But we do need you holding our hands, up at the front of the march because wherever we’re going; we can only get there together.

Role Reversal

We are The Left. We are the avant garde of progress. We struggle to reverse the values of a self-destructive world. To treasure those who’ve been thrown away. To see those who have been hurt, healed. What allies don’t often acknowledge is how we who’ve been injured can forsake liberation for revenge.

When we, minorities, enter a Leftist space, we go through a dizzying role reversal. The very qualities about our bodies, ourselves that were red-marked by shame are celebrated. Our skin, our hair, our accent, our sexual orientation, our pain are emblems of The Struggle. At best, it can lead to identity politics, at its worst, identity chauvinism.

I saw this at a recent Left Forum panel where a speaker said, Black writers had been corrupted by “the influence of Jewish intellectuals.” Silent tension filled the room. Shaking my head, I started jotting a rebuttal. Half-way into it, I looked at him. He had long dreads. He wore a dashiki. The scent of Egyptian Musk floated around him like a cloud. I stared, a little too long and thought: I used to be you.

The first liberal space I entered was college. I grew dreads. I wore so much non Western clothing I looked like a Lonely Planet guidebook. Incense spilled out of my dorm like a church. The Koran and a stack of Afro-Centric books were piled on my desk. I turned myself inside out until the confusion of being a minority became a weaponized language of resistance. My tongue was a switchblade. And I cut, cut, cut.

It was people who on my side who I hurt the most. My allies were also my friends, I battered them with rhetoric. I forced them to walk on egg shells around me. Until one of them, Brad, who I spent long evenings debating politics, sat with me until sunrise and said, “You have a chip on your shoulder.”

I could’ve stomped away. Cut him off. Who was this privileged man to tell me shit? But his words were a mirror, forcing me to see me as others did. And I trusted the reflection because in our long talks, he told me of coming out of the closet and being scared of his own desires, he told me of watching others to see if was safe for him to be him. And I knew he lived life as a target to.

I didn’t change overnight, more like zigzagged my way to a more whole self, shedding along the way the reactive flexing on sympathetic allies. But I never forgot who I had been. How could I when repeatedly, I met in anti-racist workshops or panels a new identity chauvinist? They were the ones talking over everyone, assuming their pain guaranteed their authority or the accuracy of their analysis.

But no one checked them. So the meetings broke down. A silent tension filled the room. People sulked away. Tired. Hurt. Confused. I felt that ugly energy in spurts at Occupy Wall Street, at the Left Forum panel. Recently on a livestream of a Black Lives Matters protest at the DNC, black organizers told whites to get to the back of the march. Again the tension was on people’s faces. It is the silent centrifugal force that breaks the Left apart.

Love is Thicker than Blood

“My father is such a ...ing racist,” she said and half-laughed, half-grimaced. She was driving through Brooklyn to move to a new apartment. I sat and listened to her say how Old School he was. How he didn’t get it.

“Jesus,” I said, “You make him sound like Darth Vader.” She smirked and said he’d probably lightsaber her hand clean off if he saw her carrying a protest sign. As we cackled in the car, I thought how people become allies for so many reasons. Some it’s for redemption. We want to forgive ourselves for acts we committed. Or acts we should have done but didn’t. Some want to relieve guilt at the inheritance of unearned privilege. Some are human mirrors who endlessly reflect others and that radical empathy becomes rage at injustice.

For me it was guilt at acts committed. The boarding school I went to was run by Jesus Freaks, teachers and supervisors radiated Biblical homophobia. So when, inevitably, a boy was caught kissing a boy or a girl humping a girl, we beat them, shamed them and they were transferred if not kicked out.

When I met Brad in college, I was a Nation of Islam fan. He was Jewish. I hid my homophobia behind a smile. He was learning how to be out. But I lit up when he came into my dorm. He had a handsome, owlish face, an easy grace about him. He had radar eyes that didn’t miss a thing. I felt a deep sibling love for him and for the first time, consciously asked, what kind of ally could I be to him?

I began to do acrobatic readings of the Koran to fit him into my spiritual life. I began to research homosexuality. Mom and her Old School Boricua crew, got worried and asked me if I was going gay. But being an ally, really began with a simple job. Keeping my friend safe.

One time, Brad was prepping for a drag show. I palmed my forehead as he rolled stockings up his hairy legs, slipped on a long dress, put on make-up and heels. He didn’t shave. He looked god awful. He also looked scared.

So I held his hand as we walked to Dragtober Fest. The street became a gauntlet of faces that flashed hate and disgust. Every time someone stared at Brad with a threat, I held his hand tighter and stared right the ... back. I was terrified at how much rage he had to walk through just to get to a party.

My best friend was in danger for being gay. In the months after, I began seeing homophobia in books, film, Hip Hop and in everyday talk. One night, I re-read and read an anti-gay passage in the Koran, got up and threw it in the trash.

Being an ally meant dedicating myself to understanding his struggle. To learn it. To be a part of it. To fight against the straight privilege I did not want. To force people in my life to make space for Brad and his lovers at our welcome table. And he did the same for me.

I think a lot of allies go through this life change, it’s not talked about enough, when you go beyond guilt to a place of love. When you are reflections of each other and it forces other people’s ugliness to the surface.

Brad brought his grandfather to visit me at the African Meeting House where I gave lectures. His parents fed me at their house. Years later, he told me that his father made nigger jokes on MLK Jr Day and asked if his nigger friend, me, was doing anything for him. It hurt to hear. It hurts, sometimes, being an ally. Brad saw my face, reached out and hugged me. He apologized for his father.

Years later, we met at Central Park as thousands of people gathered for a silent march against stop and frisk. Brad is a born and bred New Yorker, he knew how cops looked at me; he knew the risk I take just to get to work.

The march began. Thousands walked down 5th avenue, at times, it was so quiet you could hear shoes padding the cement. Every so often, he or I reached out and held hands. I saw a deep focus in his eyes as if he was looking not just at the Silent March but at the years ahead of us, asking how could he keep me safe?

The Struggle in the Struggle

“Better have a little of the plantation manner of speech,” white abolitionists told Frederick Douglass. In his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass recalled how they said to him to repeat his story of slavery and they’d, “take care of the philosophy.” I was reading it to prepare for a class and chuckled, imagining a Black Lives Matter protester telling William Lloyd Garrison to check his privilege.

We’re not the first to struggle with each other. Every generation of activists has to re-learn how to be an ally and how to let others ally with us. The evidence of our success is that the oppressed know they can speak for themselves. And define what freedom means for themselves. In order to get here, we needed identity politics as a necessary correction to the over totalizing of Marxist based class analysis. Today’s use of intersectionality is a correction to the one dimensionality of identity politics.

But the goal was always to struggle together. We feel the deep, human need for a just world. What guides there is a vision of justice. In practice, it means those who are part of a privileged majority do the work to see, we who are minorities, beyond stereotypes that obscure our image. And it means we, who are minorities don’t presume the guilt of allies or see them as potential oppressors.

Why? Intersectionality works both ways. Just as various forms of oppression overlap each other like heavy nets thrown over the body, so do privileges overlap. Many of us are suppressed in one way, elevated in another. If we follow this logic it leads to the end of Call Out Culture. Instead of pouncing on someone for a misstep; we can offer each other grace. Instead of labelling each other as racists or sexists or homophobic or whatever political slur; we can show compassion, maybe even risk irony and humor.

It’s something Douglass acknowledged in his eulogy of mentor and friend, Garrison. Long after he left the “plantation manner of speech” behind and became a world famous orator, he paid tribute to the man who first invited him to speak on stage. He said at Garrison’s funeral, “I must frankly say I have sometimes thought him uncharitable to those who differed from him…To say this of him is simply to say that he was human, and it may be added when he erred here he erred in the interest of truth.”

And that is what I think of you. When you, my ally errs, I know you do so in the interest of truth. And when I, your ally, royally ... up. You dap me some credit. When we bring justice to each other, we then can bring it to the world.

You probably heard the saying, “justice is love made public.” It hit home recently. Brad asked me to be the best man at his wedding to Timmy. I’m preparing a suit. I’m plotting a bachelor’s night of debauchery. When I walk him up the aisle, stand to the side and after their vows, give him the ring, I can smile knowing that this is justice, this is love and this is being an ally.

  • In Praise of Allies, Nick, Partial + Outline - jt.indypendent, Fri Jul 29 10:36
    Dear Allies You deserve praise. Yes, you. My ally. Funny how I imagine you thinking, “But I’m white or male, I’m straight or able bodied, I’m liberal or middle class; or some combination of... more
    • In Praise of Allies, Nick, Complete First Draft - jt.indypendent, Sat Jul 30 21:07
      • In Praise of Allies, Nick, 2195 - jt.indypendent, Wed Aug 3 21:37
        Dear Allies, You deserve praise. Yes, you. I imagine you thinking, “But I’m white or male, I’m straight or able-bodied, I’m liberal or middle class; or some combination of privilege, I’m part of the... more
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